The quiet rebirth of the European centre left

Having once appeared moribund, social democrats now hold office in Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. 

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Many commentators hailed the 2008 financial crisis as a social democratic moment, one that revealed the inherent defects of capitalism and paved the way for progressives to tame the free market. 

Yet in the years that followed, as the right advanced, the centre left retreated. Across Europe, social democratic parties fell prey to the curse of “Pasokification” (a term coined in reference to Greece’s vanquished Pasok, which was reduced from 160 seats to just 13 in 2015). The French Socialist Party polled 6 per cent in the 2017 presidential election – its worst-ever result – and won a mere 29 seats in the National Assembly (down from 280). In the same year, Germany’s Social Democratic Party, the grandfather of the European centre-left, won 20.5 per cent of the vote, its worst post-war result.

The Dutch Labour Party, meanwhile, achieved just 6 per cent at the general election (a fifth of its previous vote). The centre-left was similarly exiled from power in its traditional Nordic strongholds and Europe’s other major countries (the UK, Italy, Spain). In Poland’s parliament, the left had no representation at all. 

Perhaps for the first time since the crisis, one can now speak of a quiet social democratic revival. Though the centre left remains moribund in France and Germany, it is in better health in northern and southern Europe. 

In last Sunday’s Portuguese election, the Socialist Party achieved the rare feat of gaining votes and seats while in office (winning 106 seats, an increase of 20, and 37 per cent of the vote, a rise of four points). When Prime Minister António Costa formed a governing pact with the radical Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), few expected the arrangement to last (it was nicknamed geringonça: an odd contraption). Having reversed austerity, boosted growth and employment, and reduced government borrowing, Costa’s administration has proved a relative success story. 

Unemployment fell from 12 per cent in 2015 to 6.3 per cent in 2019, the minimum wage has been increased from €485 to €700, the budget deficit has almost been eliminated (having stood at 4.4 per cent of GDP in 2015) and economic growth reached 2.7 per cent in 2017, a 17-year high. (Set against this, however, the requirement to meet EU fiscal targets has left public investment parlously low.) 

In neighbouring Spain, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party has similarly cheered the centre left after finishing first in last April’s election with 29 per cent of the vote. Since forming a surprise minority government in 2018, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has increased the minimum wage by 22 per cent (the largest rise in 40 years), championed secularism (no Bible or crucifix were displayed during his inauguration) and women’s rights (he appointed a 65 per cent female cabinet), and approved the exhumation of Francisco Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen, the state mausoleum where the fascist dictator has rested since his death in 1975. Though failed government negotiations have forced a new election this November, the Socialist Party retains a comfortable lead over the conservative People’s Party and the far-left Podemos. 

No European region has been more intertwined with social democracy than Scandinavia. Yet in the post-crisis period, the centre left was increasingly marginalised as free-market parties rolled back once-revered welfare systems and the nationalist right advanced. Now, however, the social democrats have returned to government in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. 

Their revival should not be overstated. Indeed, the Swedish Social Democrats won their lowest vote share since 1908 in the 2018 election (28.4 per cent) and their Danish equivalent won their third-lowest share since 1906 (25.9 per cent). And while, like their southern European equivalents, they have moved leftwards on economics, they have also moved rightwards on immigration. The Danish Social Democrats sought to counter the far-right People’s Party by embracing policies such as a cap on non-Western immigrants and the deportation of asylum seekers to North Africa.

The centre left’s revival remains ambiguous and partial. In Germany, the SPD has plumbed new polling depths of 12-13 per cent and has been supplanted by the Greens as the leading opposition party. In France, the Socialist Party appears permanently marginalised by Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s leftist France Insoumise (the cash-strapped party has endured the indignity of selling its historic Left Bank headquarters for €45.5m). In Italy, though the Democratic Party has returned to government, in coalition with the populist Five Star Movement, it continues to poll at historic lows. And in the UK, Labour risks losing a fourth consecutive general election. 

But, crucially, the notion that centre left decline is inevitable has been repudiated. The Dutch Labour Party, which finished a humiliating seventh in the 2017 general election, won last year’s European elections and now leads national opinion polls. The centre left does not yet have a term for the reverse of Pasokification — but it may eventually need one. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.